U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“An American Tragedy in Which We All Have Played a Part”

Forty years ago today, on September 8, 1974, President Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon. As Rick Perlstein recalls in a piece published on Salon.com earlier today, it was a decision that was extraordinarily unpopular with both the media and the public at the time, but that has since become widely seen as one of Ford’s finest moments.[1] In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library actually gave Ford a Profile in Courage Award for the pardon. Like Perlstein, I think the press and public got it right the first time. In the years since the pardon, Perlstein argues, our political elites have come to so overvalue the appearance of “comity” that “[a]ll it takes is the incantation of magic words like ‘stability’ and ‘confidence’ and ‘consensus’ in order to inure yourself from accountability for just about any malfeasance.” The Ford pardon stands as a monument to the false view that our country cannot afford to hold our politicians accountable.[2]

Ford’s statement announcing the pardon to the American people is a fascinating and odd document (a video of the statement can be seen here). His argument for the pardon is not particularly coherent. He seems most interested in getting the decision over with; the issue of what would happen to Nixon already threatened to dominate his month-old presidency. He repeatedly evokes God and the Constitution. He echoes Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right…”). He emphasizes his sense of responsibility and quotes Harry S. Truman (“the buck stops here”). He denies being influenced by his friendship to Richard Nixon, even while at times sounding as if his decision is based on pity for Nixon, whose “goal of peace” Ford even reaffirms in passing.

But the sentence that I find most striking – and bizarre – is the one quoted in the title of this post. Speaking of Richard Nixon and his family, Ford declares, “Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.” It would be hard to write a fuzzier or more mendacious sentence about Watergate.

This is anything but a profile in courage.

[1] Perlstein noted on Facebook today that the piece was originally scheduled to run in the New York Times, but that an editor there bizarrely claimed to be unable to follow the argument and killed it.

[2] Perlstein suggests that Ford’s pardon of Nixon caused or inspired this tendency. I think the massive initial unpopularity of the pardon suggests that the story is somewhat more complicated. Sometime during the twenty years after the pardon, for reasons that I suspect were separate from it, the tendency to overvalue stability and comity had become firmly enough lodged in our elite political culture that the orthodox view of the pardon shifted.